Third-grade teacher Karen Clymer sits across from Petit Makambo and Willy Maulidi, both 8, as they practice sight-reading a picture book. The boys quietly read with her, their fingers scanning every word on the page. 

"We ... can ... see — Good job!" she interjects. "What's the next word? 'A.' Excellent! 'Little.' That's like 'small.' What do you see? 'Fish.' Very good!"

Clymur congratulates each of them for their hard work before sending them back to their desks.

Since January, nine Congolese children, including Willy and Petit, have enrolled at Lambs Elementary in North Charleston, all of them refugees in kindergarten through fifth grade, none speaking English and with varying backgrounds in education. 

Statewide, more than 53,000 students — about 7 percent of South Carolina's public school students —  were "limited English proficient" in the 2015-2016 school year, according to the state Education Department.

At Lambs, it's much higher. The school is a melting pot of different cultures and languages, where nearly a third of the student body is Spanish-speaking, according to the principal. Many students come from military families who've lived all over the world. But for the first time, educators here are teaching students simply how to navigate their new American world in addition to math and phonics.

"The first time I met Willy — he’s a third grader — I thought he needed to go to the water fountain, but he really needed to go to the restroom," Principal Jarmalar Logan recalled. "So we went to the water fountain, he looked at it, and then I pressed it so he could see what to do and he held his hands open. He was really attempting to wash his hands."

Imagine, for example, using a hand dryer if you've never seen one before or choosing your own lunch — pizza or PB&J — if you've never had a choice before.  

To communicate with the children, who all speak Swahili, teachers at Lambs have sometimes relied on Google Translate apps on their smart phones and creative hand gestures. They've even labeled various objects around the school. A piece of tape with the word "restroom" clings above signs outside the bathrooms in Clymer's classroom hallway. 

"The whole school in general has just been welcoming them and helping them get settled," said Rebecca Curry, Lamb's data clerk who acts as a liaison between refugee resettlement agency Lutheran Services Carolinas and the students' families. Some of the fifth-graders even downloaded Google Translate on their own devices so they could talk to the children in Swahili, too. 

Willy quickly learned how to use an iPad, Clymer recalls, but he didn't know how to peel a cheese stick until, of course, someone showed him. Willy, who has been in the United States about a month longer than Petit, has taken to showing him the ropes. 

"I noticed (Willy and Petit) were very tired in the beginning at the end of the day. They're not used to 8 structured hours. If they did go to school, it wasn't for an 8-hour day," Clymer said.

Now, she says, they're moving fast through their modified curriculum. 

"I think once they catch up with the language, I just think the progress will be very quick."

When Willy started school, Clymer learned he knew all the letters of the English alphabet but he didn't know their sounds. His first English lesson was memorizing the names of all his classmates and his teacher. He knows his numbers, too, and so far is speeding through first-grade math. The district has hired a tutor to work with students like Willy to help them progress more quickly. 

On a recent Monday, Claire Miles, a part-time English to Speakers of Other Languages teacher who started at Lambs in March, pulled Willy and Petit out of their class while their peers were quietly reading to practice some basic English phrases and vocabulary, like greetings and body parts. Both boys can write their first names — and Willy has suddenly started calling himself William — but not their last names, Miles said. 

After a lesson on the weather, Miles walked the boys over to the window. 

"What's that?" she said, pointing outside.

"Sun," Willy said quietly.


"They're like sponges, and they want to learn. They're excited to learn," Miles said later. "Tomorrow, they're gonna know 'It's sunny out.' They suck it all in, all the information." 

Reach Deanna Pan at 843-937-5764 and follower her on Twitter @DDpan. 

Deanna Pan is an enterprise reporter for The Post and Courier, where she writes about education and other issues. She grew up in the suburbs of Cincinnati and graduated with a degree in English from Ohio State University in 2012.